Few things give me as much encouragement when it comes to growing old(er) as my annual interviews of Polk County pioneers.
The pioneers program is a project of the Polk County Historical Association which records the memories of people who are at least 79 years old and have lived in Polk County for at least 50 years.
A number of years ago, I was recruited to do the interviews, which are recorded by Jim Ging of Polk Government Television and broadcast periodically over PGTV.
The process starts with a one-page biography and a three-page questionnaire from each pioneer on his or her early memories, and then a lengthy effort by Sue and Mel Sellers to schedule interviews. This process, which must mesh the schedules of several pioneers, the PGTV studio, and the interviewer, is a classic exercise in herding cats.
There was a day, not so many years ago, when I considered 70 to be old; your perspective changes as you approach, then pass, that milestone. Most of our pioneer interview subjects are in their 80s, and some are in their 90s. They defy the stereotype of the chronologically gifted.
They are at least as mentally sharp as their 72-year-old interviewer, sometimes much sharper.
Over the years, I have interviewed several people who were born in the town of Tiger Bay. But when I have asked for details of that phosphate community three miles west of Fort Meade, most say they moved somewhere else in early childhood and have no memory of the town of their birth.
Thus it was that I was delighted to interview Maxine Russell Hancock a couple of weeks ago. Maxine (invariably, our interview subjects are delighted to have me address them by their first names) is 98 years old, and lived in Tiger Bay until after she was married.
She believes that she and her 96-year-old brother are the last living former residents of Tiger Bay.
Internet research into articles by Cinnamon Bair in The Ledger and Freddie Wright in the Polk County Historical Quarterly reveals the birth year of Tiger Bay as 1899, when it was built by Palmetto Phosphate Co. It purchased by American Agricultural Chemical Co. in 1911.
The town, owned by the two companies which mined the surrounding phosphate reserves, had a two-room school house, a church, a commissary, a park, a recreation hall, and concrete tennis courts, Maxine recalls.
Dormitories housed unmarried men, and families lived in one-story and two-story houses, assigned according to their rank in the company pecking order.
After marrying into a cattle ranching family in 1934, Maxine moved to Fort Meade, which she says had a far larger retail community then than it does today.
Like many of her generation, she kept watch for enemy aircraft (but never spotted any) in World War II from the top floor of the Skeleton Hotel.
Construction of that six-story building in the heart of downtown was abandoned when the Florida Boom went bust in 1925. It was a landmark for two generations of Polk Countians before it was razed in 1964. Directions to anywhere in Fort Meade typically would begin, “Go to the Skeleton Hotel, then ... ”
Maxine tried to revisit her childhood community in recent years, but discovered the entire area fenced off. She was disappointed, but not surprised.
The day of the company town has faded into history, and in all likelihood, the phosphate ore beneath Tiger Bay was worth more than the structures that comprised the community.
(S. L. Frisbie is retired. He has never been able to trace the origin of the Tiger Bay name, either for the community or the group of political clubs of the same name. He is satisfied that they are not related.)